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Smart Cities should be Judged by How They Treat the Poor

November 26, 2014


Kamu Iyer, a veteran Mumbai architect, devotes a chapter in his book “Bombay from Precincts to Sprawl,” to discussing what architects can do to design urban environments in ways that account for the poor. Living in a country that is home to millions of people living at the bottom of the economic pyramid, Iyer is obviously confronted with that challenge on a daily basis. Thinking about ways to help lower income residents is a rare, but not unheard of, topic of discussion in the area of urban planning. Iyer’s main point “is that you can judge a city by the way its poor live.” [“Smart Cities, Gated Communities, Engels And The Way The Poor Live,” by Vidyadhar Date, countercurrents.org, 15 October 2014] In another review of Iyer’s book, Nergish Sunavala notes, “The book also deals with more contemporary issues like the redevelopment of the mill lands and slum colonies. In a recent design for a part of Dharavi Koliwada, Iyer shows how the rear setbacks could be grouped together to create a courtyard for community use. A similar design technique is used in Ballard Estate, which has low buildings and amalgamated open spaces. [“Architect documents Bombay history through its buildings,” The Times of India, 7 October 2014] Sunavala continues:

“Urban planning for the underprivileged is not a new concept though it is rarely implemented. As far back as 1945, architect Claude Batley suggested roofing over roundabouts and creating street arcades so pavement dwellers could sleep below them in the monsoon. Similarly, in 1968, [Charles] Correa suggested modifying sidewalks to accommodate both hawkers and pavement dwellers. Iyer, who was a teacher till about four years ago at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture, says the current crop of students is even more idealistic. ‘They are very conscious of the fact that the buildings that they are designing are part of a larger urban set up,’ says Iyer. ‘They are sensitive to low-income groups and concerned about the environment.'”

Few smart city discussions ever address the pressing needs of a city’s poorest residents. There is perhaps no greater need than affordable housing. Attesting to this fact are the ramshackle slums that surround many of the largest cities in the developing world. Slums, as bad as they are, at least offer some shelter to some of the world’s poorest people. Charles Kenny (@charlesjkenny), a Senior Fellow Center for Global Development, doesn’t sugarcoat conditions found in urban slums. He writes about “the stench of open sewers, the choking smoke of smoldering trash heaps, [and] the pools of fetid drinking water filmed with the rainbow color of chemical spills” that are found in many slums. But he also argues that poor people living in slums are generally better off than poor people living in rural areas. [“In Praise of Slums,” Foreign Policy, 13 August 2012] He explains:

“Most people who’ve experienced both rural and urban poverty choose to stay in slums rather than move back to the countryside. That includes hundreds of millions of people in the developing world over the past few decades — and 130 million migrant workers in China alone. … For all the real horrors of slum existence today, it still usually beats staying in a village. Start with the simple reason that most people leave the countryside: money. Moving to cities makes economic sense — rich countries are urbanized countries, and rich people are predominantly town and city dwellers. … Slum dwellers may be at the bottom of the urban heap, but most are better off than their rural counterparts. Although about half the world’s population is urban, only a quarter of those living on less than a dollar a day live in urban areas.”

Kenny points out that not everyone is optimistic about urbanization. He notes, “[An] opinion article in the New England Journal of Medicine called urbanization ‘an emerging humanitarian disaster.’ And urban theorist Mike Davis writes in Planet of Slums, ‘[N]o one knows whether such gigantic concentrations of poverty are biologically or ecologically sustainable.'” Despite such concerns, Kenny writes that “slum living today, for all its failings” is better than the alternative. If slums are going to remain a permanent feature on the urban landscape, finding ways to provide extremely low-cost housing for slum residents should be a priority. Am I optimistic that about achieving that outcome? Not really. After all building even low-cost housing requires money and that’s one thing that those living at the bottom of the economic pyramid have a hard time getting their hands on. A few years ago I wrote, “Too many people around the world live in slums — hodgepodges of thrown-together shanties crammed with people living in poverty. Slums lack basic running water and sanitation systems. Disease can spread quickly through the ranks of those living there. As a result, governments are eager to eliminate slums, but they understand that the people living in them have no place else to go.” Since slums are not likely to go away, and slum residents have nowhere else to go, it seems imperative to find a way to provide some basic services and make affordable housing available for them. No city can be smart if it’s dumb about how it deals with the poor. I agree with Iyer that cities should be judged by how their poor live.


McKinsey & Company analysts Jonathan Woetzel, Sangeeth Ram, Jan Mischke, Nicklas Garemo, and Shirish Sankhe, write, “Decent, affordable housing is fundamental to the health and well-being of people and to the smooth functioning of economies. Yet around the world, in developing and advanced economies alike, cities are struggling to meet that need.” [“Tackling the world’s affordable housing challenge,” Insights & Publications, October 2014] Affordability, of course, is a relative term, the McKinsey analysts define “the affordability gap as the difference between the cost of an acceptable standard housing unit (which varies by location) and what households can afford to pay using no more than 30 percent of income.” For those living at the bottom of the economic pyramid, that means that affordable housing can cost almost nothing. The analysts report “that the affordable housing gap now stands at $650 billion a year and that the problem will only grow as urban populations expand: current trends suggest that there could be 106 million more low-income urban households by 2025.” They go on to suggest that “four approaches used in concert could reduce the cost of affordable housing by 20 to 50 percent and substantially narrow the affordable housing gap by 2025. These largely market-oriented solutions — lowering the cost of land, construction, operations and maintenance, and financing — could make housing affordable for households earning 50 to 80 percent of median income.” Although their approach doesn’t improve the lot of the poorest of the poor, or those suffering from mental disorders, it’s a start — a welcome start. For more details, I suggest reading their article.


Fortunately, there are a number of creative people thinking about how construction costs can be reduced using recycled or locally-available materials that are of good enough quality that can withstand the rigors of daily life without too much maintenance (see, for example, “$4,000 home promises affordable housing in Vietnam,” by Adam Williams (@admwllms), Gizmag, 21 September 2014, and “Low Income Housing,” Contour Crafting, 2014] Until solutions are found and implemented, some of the urban considerations discussed by Iyer for accommodating people who call the street home need to also be discussed and implemented. Even the poorest of the poor deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.

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